Science vs. Religion (Redux?): 
How (Not) to Discuss/Debate the Subject

Sheldon F. Gottlieb

If I were not a rational human being averse to the supernatural, I might be less painfully aware that I live in a world obsessed with subjects that should long be dead, buried, and in many cases forgotten. Surely one such is the question of whether science and religion are compatible or in conflict.

On one level, it is ridiculous that we must even think about this subject. Notwithstanding that the official positions of various major religions have become friendlier toward evolution in recent years, society remains torn over the subject of science and religion.1 Are the two in eternal conflict? Are they reconcilable? By now, the whole subject of science vs. religion (SvR) should have been dead and buried in a place where Kaddish (the Jewish prayer for the dead) could not be said over it. Yet the question won’t go away: Are they reconcilable? Much as the Templeton Foundation (see below) and others seek to blur the issue, strict religious views about the physical, chemical, and biological nature of Earth and the universe are irreconcilable with scientific views. Nowhere is this clearer than on the subject of biological evolution. Yet the SvR debate blunders on, exerting deadly influence and raising havoc (primarily with the educational system, secondarily with the legal system and politics). Anyone who has taught either high school biology or non-majors Bio 101 at the university level experiences the needless turmoil created by religion. The National Center for Science Education (NCSE) can attest to the veracity of my observations, because defending the integrity of science education—that is, defending science and evolution—is the primary reason for its existence. (I discussed my university experiences teaching evolution in two demographically different American communities in the first chapter of my book The Naked Mind.)2

One question that comes to the fore: If the scientific worldview is the correct one and if many Western religions truly have accepted evolution, then what societal mechanisms keep this old, sterile contention between science and religion needlessly roiling?

The answer points primarily to people, in their scientific ignorance and their unwillingness to accept fact and reason over belief, revelation, and unreason. I say primarily because there are always those scientists who are “believers” and whose positive opinions on whether or not there is a god, or whether science and religion are reconcilable, are taken as factual truth. Of course religionists revert to authority, not empirical data, to buttress their arguments that religion is a valid way of knowing about the natural and supernatural worlds and the only way to answer questions that science cannot. Thus, to such people, opinions—not established fact—from famous scientists who are religious represent something more than just an opinion. I say “of course” because religion has always resorted to authority to support all its social (including moral) and political positions; religion has not and does not test its fundamental tenets (more below). In the past, believers referred to scientists who lived in a different time and place, one in which religion played a more prominent and coercive role in society. Didn’t Darwin hold off in publishing his magnificent research and insights into the workings of nature because he feared the reaction of the Church? If not for competition from Wallace, to the best of my knowledge it is unlikely that Darwin would have even published his work in his lifetime. In recent years, believers have lionized Dr. Francis Collins, head of the National Institutes of Health, a former atheist who became a committed Christian, who supports the concept that faith in science and in God are not incompatible.

In understanding religion and science and the false debates—SvR and “Is there a god?”—one has to confront the fact that the origins of religion are similar to the origins of science: initially, both were once steeped in ignorance, fear, and superstition.3 In the evolution of human thought, religion and science diverged in their ways of understanding the world. Religion postulated the existence of one or more supernatural deities to explain natural phenomena; the celestial beings possessed powers that controlled the workings of the world. Science sought to overcome ignorance and fear by obtaining objective knowledge by means of measuring and testing. While religious thought stagnated, continued successful learning about the natural causes of natural phenomena validated the assumptions underlying science; support for scientific methodology grew.

Unfortunately, the religious stagnation in scientific thought not only has raised havoc with modern education—particularly science education—but also has great and adverse social and political effects. It is absurd that the so-called “science” of 5,000 years ago should be considered more reliable than the science of today. I wish I could say that no one knowledgeable in history could deny this. But I cannot, because there are people who deny it: their rejection is not based on evidence but rather on a vile, perverted, hateful political ideology supported by abject lies. But that is a different subject for another day.

Other driving forces for keeping the false discussion alive include first, organizations that provide grants and awards to individuals working to reconcile science and religion and, second, the influence of religion on early childhood education.

Perhaps the most important of the offending organizations is the John Templeton Foundation, which has spent (and spends each year) millions of dollars supporting people and projects designed to show that religion and science are reconcilable. As an aside, such support demonstrates the importance of money in influencing the hearts and interests of people.

Organizations such as Templeton exist in part to sow intellectual confusion. Advocates (among them no small number of Templeton grantees) often allege that science and religion are both based on underlying assumptions. Both can be understood as being based on faith, this argument goes—although the faith in religion is quite different from the faith in science.4 Still, the fact that assumptions and faith are involved implies that on some level, science is no different from religion; science is just another belief system, one among many from which a person can select. One could choose religion instead. Therefore, it is just a question of which belief system one chooses.

This confusion exploits the difference between what the word faith means in science and what it means in religion. It is important to differentiate between them.

Faith is defined as the willingness, especially when first considering a subject, to accept something as true despite a lack of evidence, or even in the face of evidence to the contrary. The first part of that definition lends itself to testing: evidence for or against a given idea can be looked for and amassed, whereas I am not sure what, other than omission or denial, can be done to overcome evidence to the contrary.

There are six fundamental interrelated assumptions on which science is based. The first was beautifully and succinctly formulated by the bacteriologists Evelyn L. Oginsky and Wayne W. Umbreit: “The unknown is knowable and we are capable of knowing the unknown.” The “we” refers to the collective intelligence, wisdom, and knowledge of the human species. The second is that there is order in nature, and the third is that the collective human intellect is capable of discovering that order. The last three will be discussed briefly below. Underlying these axioms are the ideas that the human senses can observe accurately and that human intellect and judgment can deal with the observations and discover their order by a process called reason, such as by integrating and coordinating the observations into coherent patterns.

In science these assumptions must be validated; it is the validation procedures that are important in differentiating between such faith as scientists and religionists, respectively, entertain. The continuous testing and retesting of science is sustained by continuous successful experiences: over centuries, unknown aspects of the natural world have become known and, in many cases, their physical bases understood: such repeated successes not only justify continuing credence as to the faith of science but also give rise to technologies that provide creature comforts, greater health, rapid and comfortable transportation, expansion of the economy, a more efficient military, and expansion of personal freedoms. Since, over time, no violations have been uncovered, scientists have concluded that the underlying assumptions of science are valid. This substantiates the conclusion that science is an honest, self-correcting intellectual activity.

It is in understanding the scientific method that the other three assumptions become important: causality, uniformity in time and space, and common perception.

Causality in essence states that there is no result in nature without a preceding cause. Further, it means that the data collected about the causes of natural phenomena are reliable; the evidence has not been distorted to provide false clues. If humans cannot trust the evidence provided by the universe, then the search for objective knowledge becomes futile and no scientific knowledge gathered can be true. Religionists have difficulty with causality because the majority of humans in Western society think in terms of a personal god who will suspend the laws of nature just to satisfy their selfish needs or wants in response to an activity called prayer. If a belief system that denies causality and posits that a god can behave according to whim and caprice were true, humans would live in a world of perpetual ignorance.

Uniformity in time and space refers to the concept that natural laws do not change with time and distance: the fundamental forces at work in nature today are the same as they were yesterday and will be tomorrow, and they hold at any point in the universe. This principle is very important in science.

Common perception refers to the idea that all human beings perceive natural events in fundamentally the same way; that is, when encountering the same stimulus, we expect our senses to agree.

In contrast to science, religion does not—and cannot—continuously and carefully test and retest its underlying assumptions. It would be anathema to do so. Religion could not tolerate learning that its assumptions are invalid. Religion is not a self-correcting discipline. Further, the tenets, dogmas, and catechisms of religion, over thousands of years, have not truly added positive benefits to the health and welfare of human society.

Also, and very importantly, unlike faith in religion, faith in science has not and does not lead to social and political pathology, resulting in the unnecessary subjugation, torture, maiming, and murder of millions of innocent people because they think differently. Unfortunately, the findings of science and technological developments have been and still are being used by religion to execute its murderous designs.

Issues of science can be resolved only in the “laboratory”—not by majority vote by the public, by the Justices of the Supreme Court, in untested beliefs presumably stated in books claimed to be “holy,” or in the people-developed tenets of a faith based on revelation. There are exceptions to this statement. The one exception I am concerned with is evolution. There have been several high-profile lawsuits against the teaching of evolution without also teaching its religious counterpart, creationism (irrespective of the guise under which it is presented, such as intelligent design). To the best of my knowledge, no judge has ever thrown one of these cases out of court while saying that the courts do not solve issues of science. Instead, the courts remain involved because this issue is framed in terms of education and/or the First Amendment, and those are in the public domain. Their subject matter may be answerable only by science, yet the decisions are based on answering the questions “What is science?” and “What is religion?” Unfortunately, the fact that the courts can be so influential on a scientific issue means that scientists and the general public must be concerned about the philosophical make-up of the members of the judiciary. For example, the late Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia in Edwards v. Aguillard (the 1986 case concerning Louisiana’s Balanced Treatment Act) permitted his religious beliefs to dominate his thinking. I deduce this from his dissent, in which he supported the concept that religious and scientific views should be taught simultaneously as co-equals. Scalia’s views vary widely from those promulgated since the scientific revolution of the seventeenth century, when Francis Bacon and his contemporaries promoted the idea that if one wants to understand nature one must consult nature and not the writings of ancient authority figures.

The primary assumption in Western religions is that there exists a god that is endowed with certain powers. There is no way of testing the truth of that assumption—it cannot be measured, quantified, verified, or falsified. Nor can any deductions be derived therefrom, including the made-up supernatural world associated with a god. Though science may have nothing to say about the supernatural, it has much to say regarding some of the concepts put forth in the name of the supernatural.

An interesting aspect of any discussions or debates on these subjects is the language that is used. In my teaching days, when students or debate opponents would say to me “I believe …” I would stop them and say, “I am not interested in what you believe. This is the USA and you are free to believe whatever you want. The First Amendment guarantees that. I am interested in what you know and how you know it. The fact is that you have a belief, but that which you believe is not necessarily fact.” Any would-be defender of science who engages in a discussion/debate on the basis of belief—that is, in the language of religion—automatically loses. Discussion/debate on these issues must be carried out using the language of science.

When challenging someone to go beyond statements of belief, I would point out that scientists accept or reject ideas based on evidence, not belief. I came to insist that my interlocutor provide the evidence on which he or she accepted or rejected, say, any religious or scientific aspect of evolution. I insisted that if someone didn’t believe in evolution (note the religious terminology) he or she must tell me the evidence evolution was rejected. After all, if I am required to provide the evidence for my accepting evolution as fact, then my students or debate opponents must be required to provide evidence to the contrary. I do not accept biblical references or reference to God as being equivalent to empirical scientific evidence.

Further, one must understand that in science, knowledge is cumulative and builds on preexisting knowledge; scientific knowledge and theories are tentative and always subject to revision depending on the best available evidence; the language of science involves the correct use of language, precision of terminology, and the avoidance of confusion. For example, the scientific definition of the word theory differs greatly from its usual lay usage. All this is as distinct as it could possibly be from the way religion treats its dogma.

What about those individuals who claim that in their worldview science and religion are not incompatible? I cannot speak for all people; I do not feel competent in psychology to speak about people I have never met. I can only report to you what I have learned from the people I have met and with whom I have discussed this situation. The only explanation that I have ever considered plausible is that these individuals have compartmentalized their minds, striving not to let the religious and science compartments interact unless required. This is not a hard-wired separation, but a functional separation. When the compartments are forced to interact, the ensuing interaction leads to cognitive dissonance. Because of their ties to their religious beliefs, for whatever reason(s), I find that such individuals primarily tend to protect their beliefs and convince themselves that they really have succeeded in combining the two; they simply refuse to see the reality of differences. But what about those scientists who are believers and also know the differences yet still hold fast to their religious beliefs? Without knowing the individuals, without having discussed aspects of the subject with them, I cannot provide a knowledgeable answer. It is very difficult, if not impossible, to discuss any such issues with someone who states “I am a believer.” Those four words are conversation stoppers.

Before critics accuse me of shortchanging religion by not discussing its value to society, specifically “any aspect of life that science cannot resolve,” that was never my intention. To restrain critical emotions I will state that there are those who hold the view championed by Stephen Jay Gould that science and religion should confine their activities to their respective realms of human behavior: science should concentrate on the factual realm of the nature of the natural world, whereas religion should concentrate on an equally important but utterly different realm of purpose, meaning, and values—subjects on which religion claims science might shed light but can never resolve.5 Each should stay in its own realm and not interfere in the realm of the other. Yet it has been my experience that religion interferes more in the realm of science than vice versa; therein lay all the public discord.

While on the subject, I have some observations and a few questions. For the most part, from what I have observed throughout my life that some people claimed to have derived purpose, meaning, and values from the concept of a deity; others claim to do so from human experience. In either case, the answers all seem to be opinions, not facts: the religious view presumably is based on priestly interpretations (and visions) of a specific deity and supposedly sacred writings, whereas the nonreligious view is grounded on the concepts developed in ever-changing societies driven by advances in science and technology. Why not let people decide for themselves what their individual purpose(s) in life are? Who really knows what any god wants from, or for, us? There is no way we can prove God wanted it. Why should religious opinions be more valuable than human experience?

In the title of this essay, I mentioned how (not) to debate this subject. Throughout this essay, I referred to specific difficulties that also pertain to debating—or defending a decision not to debate—this subject. Based on years of public and university classroom experience, I would advise people to avoid debating science vs. religion, so as not to give the tired notion that the conflict is real any further credence. Whether you accept it or not, the truth is that such debates are designed for pro-science, pro-evolution advocates to lose. As I mentioned above, it is very difficult to overcome any argument in which one position is based on those conversation-stopping words “I believe.” In an hour or less, it is virtually impossible to provide audience members with sufficient scientific background in astronomy, biology, chemistry, geology, physics, paleontology, philosophy, and statistics to appreciate the magnificent concept of evolution. All too often, I found that the people defending science/evolution were knowledgeable about their area of expertise but, inevitably, deficient in their knowledge of the ancillary disciplines. Trying to explain the differences between science and religion requires an inordinate amount of time. Even books specifically written for public consumption demand hours to read, let alone understand. It has been my experience that at the end of either a quarter or a semester of classes in which evolutionary thought is used to underlie the basic biology being taught, most students come away still unconvinced. It is extremely difficult to overcome the religious inculcation to which too many in the audience have been subjected to since birth. Also, unfortunately, too many of these events take place in church environments in which the audience is already hostile toward pro-science or pro-evolutionary concepts. (Although I did participate in several such encounters, my primary experience has been with the print and electronic media.)

On to the obvious question. Why did I participate (fortunately not too often) in such public discussions—the very sort of discussion I now advise readers such as you to avoid? I have three reasons:

  1. Earlier in my life, I did not have the insights that I have gained over the years. If I knew then what I know now … .
  2. In my classroom teaching, I introduced elementary aspects of evolution and so was obliged to defend my views over the objections raised by some students (and, occasionally, the threats of lawsuits conveyed to me by students from their parents).
  3. During Alabama’s contentious textbook debates of the mid-1980s,6 I wrote numerous letters to the editor and op-ed pieces published in area newspapers. I found myself obligated to take on the anti-evolutionists. At the time, I also was an avid letter-writer on other issues, with emphasis on the Middle East, which added to my notoriety. In contrast to more typical faculty members, I was never an ivory-tower recluse. I always considered it part of my duties to help educate the public and took that obligation very seriously.

Despite my caveats, should you decide to engage in a public discussion concerning evolution—to beard the science vs. religion lion in its den—I would like to share one closing observation. Whenever I spoke on a controversial issue or attended an event at which others were doing so, I consistently observed that audiences for such events tended to be composed of three groups of people:

  1. Those who support the speaker’s position and are usually present to learn something new or have their views reinforced;
  2. Those who oppose the speaker’s position, for whom no amount of fact or reasoning would change their minds; they attended to challenge the speaker or to learn if there were new ideas that they had to learn to contend with; and
  3. The fence-sitters who really came to learn. These were the people who had not yet made up their minds, who were amenable to fact and reason and could be influenced.

To engage these three groups most productively, I came to rely on a three-pronged approach. First, I spoke primarily to the fence-sitters (Group Three), trying to encourage them to think about what was being said and its social/political importance. By doing so, I hoped to attract them to the scientific viewpoint and a rational approach to understanding the universe. In so doing, I also met my second objective, reinforcing the views of those in Group One while hoping that I was providing them with some new information or insights. My final objective was to challenge those in Group Two through the information and arguments I provided the fence-sitters (Group Three).

Are religion and science compatible? Certainly not. I consider this an open and shut case and so should all elected and appointed officials, including members of the judiciary. So too should members of the general public. Irrespective of who one is, what one’s credentials are, and what beliefs one holds, there should be no question that religion and science are vastly different and have different ways of looking at the world. Not only are they impossible to reconcile, but, very importantly, unsubstantiated religious views on the nature of the natural world must never be given any credence when developing science curricula for public schools, when drafting standards for the teaching of science, or for any other issue pertaining to the nature of the natural world and public policy concerning science.

The time has finally come—actually, the time is long overdue—to say Kaddish over SvR issues. Let us leave them dead and buried in some obscure grave forevermore.


References

Glenn Branch, “Understanding Gallup’s Latest Poll on Evolution.” Skeptical Inquirer (September/October 2017).

Sheldon F. Gottlieb, The Naked Mind. Flagstaff, Ariz.: Best Publishing Co., 2003.

Richard Sneed, “What Is Religion?” Mobile, Alabama: The Harbinger (April 8, 1997). Available online at http://www.theharbinger.org/articles/rel_sci/sneed.html.

Sheldon F. Gottlieb, “What Is Science?” Mobile, Alabama: The Harbinger (April 8, 1997). Available online at http://www.theharbinger.org/articles/rel_sci/gottlieb.html.

Stephen Jay Gould, “Nonoverlapping Magisteria,” Natural History 106 (1997).

Alabama was briefly ground zero in a legal dispute over how public schools should treat science and religion in relation to teaching the theory of evolution. See Paul Kurtz, “The New Inquisition in the Schools,” Free Inquiry (Winter 1986/87); and Ronald A. Lindsay, “Judge Hand Erred in Holding That Secular Humanism Is a Religion,” Free Inquiry (Fall 1987).

Sheldon F. Gottlieb

Sheldon F. Gottlieb is a retired physiologist and professor of biological sciences. He is the author of The Naked Mind (Best Publishing Company, 2003).


If I were not a rational human being averse to the supernatural, I might be less painfully aware that I live in a world obsessed with subjects that should long be dead, buried, and in many cases forgotten. Surely one such is the question of whether science and religion are compatible or in conflict. On …

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